Winnie Harlow on Her Family’s Generational Love of Beauty
Photo: Courtesy of Winnie Harlow
On Beauty

Winnie Harlow on Her Family’s Generational Love of Beauty

“I love fashion for sure, but I think beauty, makeup, and skincare is what gets me really excited.”

Welcome to On Beauty, a series where we take a deep-dive look into one person's relationship to beauty, how that relationship has transformed over the years, and how they experience being seen. This week, we're talking to Winnie Harlow, supermodel and founder of Cay Skin. Below, she shares her lifelong passion for beauty, the inspiration behind creating her own brand, and why she no longer obsesses over the latest product launches.

My love for beauty came before fashion. When I first started modeling it was the same feeling as starting at a new school. I didn't know anyone or too much about the industry when I first got into it. I had to learn and grow as time went on. My mom used to sell Avon and Mary Kay door to door, so beauty has always been a part of my life and part of something that I was passionate about. I love fashion for sure, but I think beauty, makeup, and skincare is what gets me really excited.

I grew up in Canada but would also spend a lot of time in Jamaica. As a little girl I obviously loved makeup and I remember my mom used to draw on my face with lipstick. She always wanted to be mindful of the fact that I was a kid, so she would use it to do little face paints, like put a little nose and whiskers like a cat and stuff like that. [That way] I got to play with it, but it was still childish.

My grandmother had such an impact on me. She taught me about confidence through the way she took care of herself. I remember her always painting her nails bright red while sitting down in the bathroom. When I would get sunburnt or have a mosquito bite, she used to cut fresh aloe vera from the plants outside and use it on my skin. She definitely had a big hand in my beauty inspirations.

Photos: Courtesy of Winnie Harlow

Winnie with her mother

I hate being in the beauty chair, just because it takes so long and I wanna get up. [laughs] But when you have an amazing team, [it makes all the difference]. It’s similar to when everyone used to go once a week to the hair salon. It kind of becomes your therapy. My mom's a hairdresser and she had salons when I was growing up. I just remember being a kid and seeing these women come in and leave with smiles on their faces. It was not just from the styles, but it was being able to share their thoughts, their opinions, their worries — just get things off their chest. I find that I have that same type of relationship with a lot of my glam teams, as well. They see you in the most vulnerable spaces and then they turn it out.

I am so picky when it comes to who does my makeup because while you can do amazing makeup on a lot of people, when it comes to doing my face, there's no face like mine. So it's like relearning how to do makeup on my skin and where the placement is for light and dark tones. Adam Burell was the first person to ever get me to really step out of my comfort zone when he gave me an orange lip at the Cannes film festival. I tried it, I wore it, and those pictures on the red carpet, I love to this day.

One of my earliest beauty memories was that I hated wearing sunscreen. In Jamaica my dad would slather [me in] that white sunscreen that leaves a blue tone on your skin. I used to hate that. I would be feeling so cute with my little tank tops and now I have this icky blue sunscreen on. It would make me cringe. I was on set in 2018 on a beach and I was shooting from sun up to sun down. They didn't want me to wear sunscreen because of that same blue tone that I had already known very well from growing up. I got so badly burnt that they had to have doctors come and give me injections for pain and inflammation. I was so dry, chapped, and in pain from that sunburn that I was like, there's no reason why anyone should ever have to experience this just because there's nothing on the market that people want to wear. So that was the problem I wanted to solve by creating Cay Skin.

Photos: Courtesy of Winnie Harlow

It wasn't really that I ever envisioned [building my own brand] but when it came to something that I was really passionate about, I felt like I needed to fix this. I needed to create access to good quality sun care for everyone, no matter their skin tone. Being a product junkie, I am obsessed with the formulation process and ensuring that the formulas are the best that they could be and truly differentiated. Everything else really came secondary. I just had an open mind because this was something I had never done before. It’s all about expecting the unexpected when it comes to being a founder and creating a business.

I think I used to love getting all the new products and trying the latest thing that everyone was raving about, but now I love reading reviews. I wanna see what the people are saying and how it looks before I really get invested in a product. I specifically love Sephora reviews because they have the option of including a picture or watching YouTube videos. I search Cay Skin on everything because I want to see what people are saying. Not just to see the positive things, but [other feedback] like if someone said this texture didn't work for me or whatever the case. It's an amazing critique for me.

I don't really pay attention to standards or trends or stuff like that when it comes to beauty just because that has never been a mold that I fit into anyway. So it wasn't something that I cared to pay much mind to as I got older. When I was younger, for sure. I wanted to be the same, be the standard, be in the mold. But now as an adult, I just like what works for me. I may use the same product for like five years. I don't really care what is the hot, new thing. I wanna know what works, what looks good on me, and that's it.

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